IAHA Q&A with Chris Lee (Diabetes Australia)


Firstly, I would like to acknowledge all Traditional Custodians on the lands on which we work, live and play and to pay my deepest respects to our Elders past, present and emerging.

I’m a Gulumerridjin (Larrakia) Traditional Custodian from Darwin through my mothers’ mob and Karrajarri from south of Broome through my Dads mob.



My diabetes journey started with my diagnosis with type 2 diabetes in 2014. I was working in the criminal justice system at the time and like most newly diagnosed people, I was in a bit of shock and certainly disbelief as I had no physical symptoms of any sort of illness.

At that stage I didn’t have the knowledge or confidence to question my diagnosis nor the cause, care and management necessary to successfully manage my condition.

My journey to discover more about my condition was fraught with obstacles until I met some Aboriginal people who were working in the diabetes space. We had a quiet yarn and things started to make sense. I now have the words and confidence to question health professionals and slowly started to discover how to better manage my condition.

I was appointed to the position of Manager, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement as Diabetes Australia in February 2019. I’d come from a background in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander broadcasting and communications and the criminal justice system.

My role at Diabetes Australia is provide an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural lens on our range of projects, resources and policies which seek to reduce the terrible burden and impact of diabetes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

I provide the organisation with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective and provide an interface between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, cultures and communities and Diabetes Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffer some of the worst rates of diabetes and associated chronic diseases in the world and it’s our role to educate and encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with these conditions and to engage with the medical profession to develop culturally appropriate care and management systems.



If you have diabetes basically it’s not your fault. It’s in your genetics.

Before whitefellas came, us mob were active every day; looking for food, hunting, moving around to sing up country. We had ceremonies and sacred sites to look after. We only ate clean healthy food and we only drank clean water. For centuries our diets were full of good fats from fish and turtle and good lean proteins from kangaroo, possum, wombat. We harvested grains and berries to keep us healthy. We never knew about Diabetes.

For centuries our bodies got used to a certain diet and way of life. There were times we might have fasted for a day as we hunted or moved to the next ceremonial area, but our bodies were physically adapted to this way of life. We only hunted what we needed, and we gathered only what was in season. When whitefellas came everything changed including our diet and levels of activity.

We sat down more. We got sit down money. We could only go the mission store for processed foods. Our mental health suffered along with our bodies.

The first case of Diabetes in an Aboriginal person showed up in 1923. That’s in the time of our parents and grandparents.

Now, with fewer of us living a traditional lifestyle, and more of us being exposed to the whitefella world, with foods that are low in fibre and high in fat and sugar, alcohol, cigarette smoking and an inactive lifestyle, our once-efficient metabolism may now be acting against us. The genetic make-up that enabled us mob to survive when food was scarce may now be a big disadvantage, encouraging weight increases, diabetes, and associated conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

But it’s not the end. We can prevent, manage or, in some cases, reverse our Diabetes.

Most Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people have or know someone in their family or community who has Diabetes, but this is OK. We can still live a long and happy life if we look after ourselves. We can make little changes and slowly get our diets and exercise back to the old ways. Not totally but close. There are also medicines available to help our bodies deal with the excess glucose or sugar in our system. Our bodies are still set up for our traditional lifestyle, but we know this is hard to get back to.

If you think you might have Diabetes or are pregnant for the first time, go see the Aboriginal medical service. They offer a confidential, culturally understanding Diabetes support service. They can talk you through your condition and give you resources to help you understand what Diabetes is and how you can manage it. Family and friends can also help you manage your Diabetes once the clinic has seen you. There are also free national Diabetes support schemes like the National Diabetes Services Scheme or the NDSS. These can help you access services when you travel or are visiting family interstate. Ask your clinic about registering. It’s simple and easy.



July 13, 2020


Posted by: Renae Kilmister